Two days after Russia invaded Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky called on his armed forces to surrender in an account on the telegram messaging platform.
The message was not authentic, the original Zelensky soon denied the claim on his official telegram channel, but the incident highlighted a big problem: uninterrupted information spreads quickly in encrypted apps.
The fake Zelensky account reached 20,000 followers in the telegram before it was shut down, a remedial measure that experts say is very rare.
Pavel Durav, founder and CEO of Telegram of Russian descent, says he protected Ukrainian personal information from the Russian government nine years ago at the expense of his company and his home. However, he “will do it again – without hesitation.”
However, for Alexandra Teshanvskar, head of the Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group at the Kyiv-based Ukraine Crisis Media Center, the effects of the lack of oversight in the telegram are near and far-reaching.
“For the telegram, accountability has always been a problem, which is why it was so popular even before the full-scale war with far-right extremists and terrorists from around the world,” he told AFP from his safe house outside the Ukrainian capital.
Telegram boasts of 500 million users who share information individually and in groups for relative security. But the use of Telegram as a one-way broadcasting channel – in which followers can join but not reply – means that content from unverified accounts can easily reach large, captive and interested viewers.
False news often spreads through public groups or chats, with potentially deadly effects.
“Someone pretending to be a Ukrainian citizen simply joins the chat and starts spreading misinformation, or collects data such as the location of the shelter,” Shekhanvska said, referring to how false messages prompted Ukrainians to turn off their phones at certain times of the night, citing cybersecurity.
Such instructions can actually put people at risk – citizens are alerted to an air strike by a smartphone alert.
In addition, the architecture of the telegram limits its ability to slow the spread of false information: the lack of a central public feed, and the fact that comments are easily disabled on channels, reduces the space for public pushback.
Although some channels have been removed, analysts consider the curing process opaque and inadequate.
Emerson Brooking, a disinformation expert at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said: “During the Wild West period of content restraint, like 2014 or 2015, they might have stayed away from it, but that’s how it stands. Other companies run their own today.”
WhatsApp, a rival messaging platform, introduced some measures to deal with confusion when COVID-19 first spread around the world.
For example, WhatsApp has created automated systems that limit the number of times a user can forward something and detect and flag offensive content.
Unlike Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook and Twitter, which run very public anti-information programs, Brookings says: “Telegram is famously lax or absent in its content restraint policy.”
As a result, the epidemic saw many newcomers to the telegram, including prominent anti-vaccine activists who used the app’s hands-off method to share false information in shots, a study from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue shows.
Again, unlike Facebook, Google and Twitter, Telegram founder Pavel Durav runs his company from Dubai in relative secrecy.
On February 27, however, he admitted from his Russian-language account that “telegram channels are becoming a source of unsolicited information related to increasingly Ukrainian events.”
He said that since his platform did not have the ability to check all channels, it could limit some of Russia and Ukraine to “conflict duration”, but the course was reversed a few hours later after many users complained that it was an important source of telegrams. Information
Oleksandra Matvichuk, a Kyiv-based lawyer and head of the Civil Liberties Center, called Durv’s position “too weak” and called for concrete improvements.
“He needs to be more proactive and find a real solution to the situation, not to be on standby without intervention. This is a very irresponsible position on the part of the telegram owner,” he said.
In the United States, Telegram’s low public profile has helped it avoid high-level congressional scrutiny, but it has not gone unnoticed.
Some people used the platform to organize before the storm in the U.S. Capitol in January 2021, and last month Senator Mark Warner sent a letter to Durav in a telegram to block Russian information activities.
Asked about his position on the confusion, Telegram spokesman Remy Vaughan told AFP: “As our CEO noted, the sheer amount of information shared on the channels makes it extremely difficult to verify, so it’s important that users double-check what they read. See. “
But Sekhanovskaya of the Ukraine Crisis Media Center noted that communications in war-torn areas are often cut off, and that such cross-referencing is beyond the reach of many.